At the start of the Christmas season, I love to read the Christmas story in Luke 2. The story has such power, and is accompanied by so many memories… Memories of getting my first Bible in second grade and reading it in the King James Version… Memories of hearing it in church, reading it in church, preaching it in church… Memories of pageants, elaborate and simple, agonizing and sweet… Memories of reading the story to our children.
This year will be the first time in 35 years that Turner and I will wake up on Christmas morning with just the 2 of us in the house. Our children have both married in the last year, and they are rotating to the in-laws. We will plug in the tree and the lights, eat breakfast, and sit in the living room opening a few presents. Then we will try to call family members in three different time zones.
Later in the day we’ll drive to Helena and have dinner with our son, daughter-in-law, and her family visiting from points east and south. We’ll probably do the cooking while they pick up the relatives at the airport. There’s an anticipation in the air—our daughter-in-law is pregnant, and next year we expect a baby to be the center of attention in our family’s gathering. Somehow our waiting for a baby this Advent seems so appropriate.
On Christmas Eve we will have dinner with the Jewish side of the family. Then, later on, we’ll go to church. Our sister-in-law and nieces are Jewish, and always honor our tradition by having a Christmas dinner with us. We reciprocate at Passover, when it doesn’t conflict with Maundy Thursday. The Jewish community in Great Falls has a nice tradition at Christmas time. Volunteers from the Jewish community staff the Mercy Home, the shelter for women and children escaping domestic violence. The Jewish volunteers stay in the shelter so that the staff can have Christmas with their families. We’ll work our Christmas Eve dinner around our church schedule and their volunteer schedule.
This phenomenon is widespread. Across the country, and without making a big deal of it, Jewish doctors and nurses, firefighters and law enforcement and many others volunteer to work on Christmas so that their Christian colleagues can spend the holiday with their families. Jesus was a Jew, brought up in a Jewish family. Christians and Jews are cousins, with all kinds of reasons not only to get along, but to love one another. Come to think of it, Christians might use Christmas to love all kinds of people who coexist on this earth with us.
In our family we are a bit old-fashioned about Christmas. We celebrate the 12 days of Christmas—after Christmas and not before, as so many commercial businesses seem to be doing these days. We go from Christmas to Epiphany with lights and boughs, and with the Magi moving incrementally closer to the baby Jesus in the creches that aren’t immobilized. We enjoy the slow buildup to Christmas that Advent affords, and we relish the slow movement towards Epiphany that our tradition provides.
So you won’t see our Christmas tree in the recycling on December 26. And if you come by our house in early January, you’ll still see the creche sets around the house, and the decorations on the doors. We are in no hurry to eradicate Christmas.
Right now generosity is in the air. My inbox and my mail box are full of requests from good causes encouraging us to consider them in our year-end giving. My van driver from the auto shop this morning asked if I knew anyone who needed a Christmas tree. She had an extra one and wanted to share it with someone who is needy. We brainstormed about how to accomplish that. The grocery store has gift coupons to add to your bill, to provide food for the hungry. And many congregations and businesses have giving trees, as a way to help a person or a ministry in need. The Montana Synod got in on the giving tree idea, by offering opportunities to support Freedom in Christ Prison Ministry, Spirit of Life Ministry, Our Saviour’s Rocky Boy, NRIT, the Cape Orange Diocese, and children’s scholarships in Bolivia. Like you, we are weighing options, and writing out checks.
At the end of the Christmas season, I love to read the beginning of the Gospel of John. It, too, tells the Christmas story, from a different perspective than the narrative of Luke. It catapults the touching story of the extraordinary birth of a baby into a promise of salvation for all nations. As the days lengthen we hear the words: “The light shines in the darkness; and the darkness did not overcome it.”
Thanks be to God.
Jessica Crist, Bishop
I was sitting in the doctor’s office this week, waiting for my turn, when I heard the man ahead of me ask the doctor, “Are you ready for Christmas?” Her response warmed my heart. “Good heavens, no! We’ve still got 2 weeks!”
Two weeks to finish the shopping and the wrapping, the addressing and the mailing. Two weeks to finish the baking and the decorating, the caroling and the year-end giving. Two weeks to prepare our hearts and minds for the coming of the Lord. Wow.
There is a way in which we are never ready for Christmas, never ready for the surprise of the Incarnation, of the Word made flesh. Advent, with its troubling series of scripture texts, gives us a taste of disruption, but also hope. God coming to be among us, to be one of us is a major disruption of the status quo.
Mary reflects that in the Magnificat, as she visits her cousin Elizabeth.
My soul magnifies the Lord,
And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
For he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed ;
For the Mighty One has done great things for me,
And holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
From generation to generation.
He has shown the strength with his arm;
He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
And lifted up the lowly;
He has filled the hungry with good things,
And sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
In remembrance of his mercy,
According to the promise he made to our ancestors,
To Abraham and his descendants forever.
The Magnificat is a hymn to transformation, and to justice, sung by a young woman just plucked from obscurity. Was she ready for what was ahead? Certainly not. And yet God chose her to carry the child. God entrusted her to nurture and protect God’s own self, in the form of a baby.
I just learned that a friend was diagnosed with breast cancer. Not what she was planning for this Advent. And yet, there it is, shattering her plans, redirecting her energy and the prayers of those who love her. Her diagnosis has thrown a wrench into plans. But it has also re-focused Advent on what really matters.
No matter how organized we are, not matter how much we plan ahead, we can never fully prepare for God coming among us. We are never really ready for Christmas. And that’s as it should be.
Jessica Crist, Bishop
As you read this, I am in Chicago with representatives of other synod,s sharing our experiences with lay ministry. The Montana Synod’s Lay Pastoral Associate (LPA) program is one of the gems of our Synod, and is much admired across the ELCA.
So what is it all about? First of all, lay people have been serving the church since it began. Jesus and the twelve disciples were lay people. Paul was a lay person. All of the earliest leaders in the Jesus movement—men and women—were lay people. Philip Melanchthon, theologian and interpreter of the Reformation and right hand man to Martin Luther, was a lay person. One of the strands of Lutheranism that was influential in the “Lutheranization” of the territory we call the Montana Synod promoted the ministry of the laity. And of course, our relatively spread-out population necessitated lay people taking over the pulpits in the absence of an ordained pastor. So lay ministry is in our history, it is in our bones.
About 25 years ago, following the lead of the Western North Dakota Synod, the Montana Synod began the LPA program as a way to support and train lay people who were already being called upon by their congregations to preach and lead in the absence of a pastor. The program began in eastern Montana, where there was greatest need.
Soon people from other parts of the state expressed interest in the LPA program, and now we have trained LPAs in every cluster of the Synod. Currently we have 3 LPA classes going—one in Great Falls, one in Glendive, and an advanced class for people who have already finished the program and want more training.
Pastor Jason Asselstine currently coordinates the program. Faculty for the 4 workshops over the 2 years come from the Montana Synod, teaching prayer and spirituality, worship leadership, preaching and pastoral care. Students are mentored by local pastors, and engage in additional academic work in theological disciplines.
The LPA program has grown and changed over the years, but it has remained a home-grown program, designed for the needs of the Montana Synod. LPAs do pulpit supply, serve on councils, lead Bible studies, serve as Synodically Authorized Ministers, visit shut-ins, and assist congregations in a variety of ways, according to their gifts. They also serve in Synod roles.
Our companion synod in Bolivia is also working with lay ministry, and requested that we bring LPAs to Bolivia—which we did in September. The Bolivians were particularly interested in hearing how our program works, and hearing the experiences of the 3 LPAs who were present (Cynthia Thomas—who serves 3 congregations as a Synodically Authorized Minister; Dave Scholten—who does pulpit supply; and Alex Tooley—a high school student who also serves on the Synod Council.)
In Chicago we are rubbing shoulders with representatives of a whole variety of lay ministry programs—each designed for their particular context. Some are urban, some are rural. Some are in Spanish. Each has a place.
It is true that our seminaries are producing fewer candidates for pastoral ministry than are retiring. (And it is not the seminaries’ fault—it is up to all of us to find and encourage candidates of any age.) But it is also true that although there is plenty of work to go around, it doesn’t all have to be done by ordained pastors. Deacons (called ministers of word and service) also do God’s work, and so do all the baptized people of God. LPAs are part of the Montana Synod strategy not only to fill pulpits, but to equip and train and educate lay people in service to God and neighbor.
Jessica Crist, Bishop
Bishop Jessica Crist
Bishop of the Montana Synod of the ELCA